“We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.”
Jeff VanderMeer has produced a true tour de force this year with his new novel Borne, which follows Rachel as she navigates a spare and dangerous post-apocalyptic waste with Wick, her longtime compatriot, and Borne, her mysterious charge.
The world VanderMeer builds for this story is gorgeously unsettling. Rarely in post-apocalyptic scifi do we have so little of the world explained to us. I admire greatly his courage in leaving so many questions not only unanswered but unacknowledged; the lack of understanding he allows the reader feeds directly into the sense of unease he cultivates for this story.
For me, at least, this book was a strong departure from my norm and I struggled with every page. The language is so gaunt, the worldbuilding so spare, the pacing is at times frenetic and others meandering. These qualities combined to keep me deeply uncomfortable throughout my experience with this book – and yet I could not stop reading. The world he creates is as captivating as it is deadly. As much as I wanted to return to the safety of my usual fare, I needed to know what VanderMeer had in store for Rachel, for Borne. For me.
As the story progresses, VanderMeer not only introduces more horrifying monsters he describes them with increasing detail and clarity. Where at the beginning you might have been afraid of the unknown in Borne, by the middle you’re far more afraid of what you know is just outside the door, or just overhead.
To my mind, that’s the true impact of this book. VanderMeer draws you into the world, along with the characters, with so many techniques you can’t help but share in the wonder, the anticipation, the confusion, and (yes) the fear. Rachel herself is a clear culprit, openly involving the reader in the narrative:
What would you have done, reader, who has been able to follow me like the Magician followed me, invisible and ever-watchful and without consequences?
But in the end I think the strongest draw, pulling the reader into the world of Borne are the unanswered questions. You cannot, as a reader, remain academically removed from the story when VanderMeer’s answers are so thinly strewn throughout the narrative. You can’t help but peer in, deeper and deeper, combing every line for some explanation to grasp hold of, to keep you afloat on this sea of inexplicable nightmare.
Borne is a truly masterful assemblage of diverse individual aspect, each of which is fascinating and rich in its own right. VanderMeer could easily have written 300 pages on Mord (the monstrous flying bear the size of a city block), or 450 pages on the rise and fall of The Company, or similar ages on Rachel’s history, or Wick’s, or on Borne himself. Instead, he uses each element as sparingly as possible, like an extreme adherence to the adage “leave them wanting more”. This, of course, adds immensely to the reader’s feeling of unease. Too, however, it allows the reader to project their fears, their images, their nightmares into the skeleton horror world VanderMeer provides for us. The terrifying sounds in the dark aren’t given names by the author – they’re named by each reader after what we fear lurking in the shadows.
After reading Borne, I am forever changed. The darkness holds new terrors for me, and I’m still not sure I’m glad of that. But I am in awe of what Jeff VanderMeer accomplished with this book. He is clearly a master of his craft, and Borne is surely not his last triumph.